Image: Thomas Cobb

What’s been hailed as the worst restaurant economy in decades hasn’t tempered the spirits of Portland’s innovative gastronomists. With restaurants increasingly seen as shaky ventures compared to, say, Dollar Stores, some of the city’s most talented chefs have tossed aside their white coats and fancy kitchens to tinker with the lowly sandwich in the culinary equivalent of the tree house. But these craftsmen aren’t settling; they’re raising the standard of the sandwich—and saving dough in the process.

Since last fall, five sandwich shops with chefs at the helm have popped up in Portland, garnering the city a national reputation among the foodie set as a sandwich-lover’s paradise—one that’s already been extolled in the pages of GQ, Food & Wine, and the New York Times. Chef John Stewart (formerly a line cook at Park Kitchen) opened his Southeast Portland establishment Meat Cheese Bread in September 2008. Two months later, Tommy Habetz, formerly executive chef at Gotham Tavern, and his partner, Nick Wood (of Meriwether’s and Pok Pok), followed suit with Bunk Sandwiches, just a few blocks away.

What these Portland chefs call a "sandwich" transcends the merely mortal realm of cold cuts. Bunk Sandwiches, for instance, elevates the standard lunch staple with exceptional combinations like milk-braised pork and pickled green tomatoes served in po’ boy form, or a Spanish-influenced salt-cod sandwich, complete with black olives and house-made chorizo on a ciabatta roll.

But there’s much more fueling Portland’s current love affair with sandwich shops than a penchant for reinvention. While the Rose City remains one of the country’s hottest food towns, the credit crunch has rendered start-up capital for restaurant projects scarce. "A restaurant kitchen alone can cost an operator up to $250,000‚" says veteran restaurateur David Machado, who has debuted seven Portland eateries (including Lauro, Vindalho, and, most recently, Nel Centro at the Hotel Modera).